December 24, 2015

What Ordinary Christians Can Learn from a Monastery

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In a time when the force of our contemporary post-Christian society pervades much of life, often by technology but as well, and increasingly, through social situations, general culture, and even rules and regulations of the state and society that involve and/or require compromise with the world, it was refreshing and inspiring to visit Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, in mid-December. I chose to visit the monastery for a day and a half, including an entire Sabbath.

Jordanville is a small hamlet located about mid-way between Albany and Syracuse. The monastery is located somewhat beyond the settlement, in an area of open fields and woods, not unlike rural Russia. My Sunday visit meant I was able to attend a mid-morning liturgy rather than the 6:00 a.m. liturgy, which is observed daily. Largely in Church Slavonic, with several Scripture readings in English, the homily was likewise non-English. Meals with the monks are eaten without conversation but not in silence; throughout each meal the lives of the saints are read (again in a non-English narrative).

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (or Abroad), of which the monastery is a part, is a testimony to perseverance in adversity. Initially begun in 1922 as a response to the catastrophe for Orthodoxy occurring within Russia, and separating from the Moscow Patriarchate after it pledged loyalty to the Soviet state in 1927, it has pursued an uncompromising obedience to historic Christianity for almost 100 years. The years since the 1920s have seen Stalin’s terror and mass murder, the cataclysm of World War II, a very close call for the civilized world in which millions of people died and the Russian homeland was devastated, the protracted struggle with communism – styled the “Cold War” after 1948, involving a steady advance of an atheist ideology into Eastern Europe, East Asia, and eventually Africa and Latin America, the deaths of millions of people in East Asia as a result, and the post-1960 social revolution of the West, now stronger than ever and endeavoring to conquer non-Western societies as well as the West. How can faithful Christians survive into the future in this maelstrom, which involves not only violence, but intellectual attack, a way of life pervaded by demystified nature, utilitarianism for individual gratification, constant change, and now increasingly legal restrictions on Christian conscience?

A clear orthodoxy is certainly important, which the Orthodox Church impresses on us by its very name. Without a clear understanding of the truth, we have little more to offer the world than good will, and one hardly needs the church for that. Regrettably, attempts to come to terms with a hostile or indifferent but intrusive world come to little more than that. We have to be clear as we live in a hostile or indifferent world that the truth is behind our Christian commitments and ceremonies. Most importantly, God requires belief. In addition to that, without belief in the truth God has revealed, churches die. But more than dead orthodoxy is necessary.

A visit to a monastic community – probably to most such communities, but certainly the one I visited – impresses on us Jesus’ words that there are really only two things truly important in life: love of God and love of neighbor. So much else in contemporary life is our own entertainment, our own preoccupation about passing things we see in the mass media, have heard through the social media, or is trivia from trivial conservation. In a monastic community, these things are put aside. The focus is on love of God, expressed in worship, work, prayer, and meditation, and love of neighbor, expressed in brotherly love and work. Such a life will be focused on the permanent things – on God, on the church family in which one lives, on one’s own family, if not living a monastic life, and less moved by the fads and fears of contemporary popular culture. We will understand that regardless of the changes, whether social, scientific, or technological in the wider world, our lives are rooted in the permanent things which preoccupy us, even where the manifestations of the permanent in this world that we have grown accustomed to might be swept away by revolutionary changes in the world, as they were for the Russian church. Sometimes our time will be preoccupied by things we cannot control. Sometimes this will be much or even most of our lives. But the true follower of Christ knows that whatever he is constrained to do (always only within God’s will), or cannot do, his life is rooted with Christ in God (Col. 3:1). And insofar as one has control of his life, he will occupy it with what is permanent.

The religious art of Orthodox churches seems somewhat stylized to eyes which have been accustomed to the highly naturalistic representations of the great art and popular religious illustrations of the West, and yet one point comes through Eastern art clearly and powerfully: the strong, vigorous Christ, who takes saints out of their graves with a firm hand. It’s quite a contrast to some Western portrayals which emphasize Jesus as a tender shepherd or a victim. All of these portrayals express the truth about Jesus, but the Eastern portrayals of Jesus as victor and king express a truth about Jesus which is important for the future, and which will take us into the future, no matter what we see in the contemporary world. Here we might note the difference between Christmas and Good Friday on the one hand (which celebrate the coming of the Son of God into a dark world, and Christ’s obedience – and by imitation, ours – unto death), and Easter, the unexpected victory of Christ over death. Theologically, Easter is the greater celebration, and one which is the greater celebration in the East. A possible exception is American Protestantism, which historically has emphasized Easter more than Western Christendom generally, with sunrise services and Easter parades (the former still held by observant Protestants, the latter largely passé).

Beyond the church, monastic quarters, and seminary, a museum presents displays of pre-revolutionary Russia, with Old Bibles and Gospels, old legal treatises, imperial clothing and jewelry, documents of various kinds (such as the edict emancipating the serfs in 1861), displays concerning various czars, Peter the Great, Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great, the nineteenth-century czars, Nicholas II, the last czar, the Russian civil war, and the exile in Europe and America. One sees clearly the glories of the past. As for the present and future, it is noteworthy that the last item displayed in the last window (concerning the Russian diaspora) was an ecclesiastical decree concerning feet washing. We know that Christ will be victorious in the end, but for the present, and on into the future, we must focus on faithfulness, which means living in the truth and service to God and man.

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